When it Rains in Oxford...

Arani S Hazarika reflects on the cultural differences between India and Oxford and shares a personal experience of moving away from her home country for the first time.

The rain in Oxford doesn’t quite feel like the Indian Monsoon. Some might laugh — it is only water dropping from the sky, is it not? But when it rains in India, I am happy.

I never truly understood the value of the word “home” before I came here. I might have even downplayed it, I admit. I had montages playing in my head of conquering the day, manoeuvring through coming-of-age adventures as I got ready for a 12-hour journey from Guwahati to London Heathrow. I felt like Emily in Paris, or Kevin, ‘home-alone’ in New York, or my own version of Rani in Queen. Spoiler alert: none of what I expected really happened. Yet.

To begin with, I was not prepared for the British winter, especially with my then undiagnosed hypothyroidism. College wouldn’t switch on the heaters until the second half of November, and there I was shivering under two layers of clothing, a blanket, and a duvet since Halloween. The scorching heat that I complained about in my homeland was what I craved the most. 

Negotiating through life in the JCR can be a struggle. For one, you’re sitting like a puppet through conversations around pop culture, peppered with generous doses of sarcasm you have not encountered before. And the moment you ask, “What’s that?,”  groans of complaint spread around the room. Someone yells, “Who wants to explain?” and a volunteer, visibly helpless and tired, does me the favour. I was once told to my face how annoying it is to have someone ask questions in the middle of a conversation. Others, though fewer, are kinder. I once had someone try to find a common point of conversation. She listed out films one after another, none of which I knew. I named a few in return, which she didn’t know. We’d both watched The Sound of Music though, so it was fine in the end!

It took me a while to realise—despite a heads-up from a fellow international student—that British people use “how are you?” as a greeting. I don’t know what was more awkward, me answering the question literally, or scuttling away from out-of-the-blue public displays of affection that the Eastern Hemisphere is not used to. Contributing to the cognitive chaos is the fact that my intentions are misunderstood due to a difference in connotation. For the longest time, people thought I was giving orders when I was really asking a question. “You’re coming to Najar’s?” I once asked someone, the question marked by the inflected intonation at the end and not by adding the word “are”. The someone in question, a white Australian, replied, “okay,” sounding confused. Then a British classmate nearby told them, “Yeah, she doesn’t ask, she wants you to do it.”

I miss my food back home terribly. Something I do to deal with it is to occasionally eat rice for a meal (at home it is a staple). Once, in Hall, there was rice, and I reflexively started eating with my hands, forgetting where I was. I had a white British classmate sitting across from me and I looked up to find them looking back at me with an appalled expression that made their discomfort clear. “Uhraaaanayyy? Are you eating with your hands?”

In all of Oxford’s rush, that gets to you even in your sleep, I experience a moment of contemplation at Tesco’s self-checkout. I look inwards to wonder: has Oxford taken more from me than I have received in return? I have always wanted to study here, at least since I was thirteen, so I definitely, whole-heartedly signed up for whatever was to come my way, even if unwittingly. As I walk back to college, my eyes fall on the clouds, in their golden-hour glory. I think of lost friendships. If I were back home, maybe I would be cloud-watching with my best friend from school. If I were back home, I’d be with my family celebrating Diwali instead of writing this article with yet another looming essay deadline. If I were back home, maybe I wouldn’t be lonely. Maybe I wouldn’t feel like I don’t belong. Maybe, just maybe, I’d be happy? They say, to win something, you lose something.

Then I see the golden lining. The college nurse’s voice rings in my ear; “You know, Arani,” she says, thoughtfully, “you have shown great strength of character over this past year, what with all that’s happened.” Strength of character. Big words. I am definitely not the same person who walked through the grand entrance of Balliol, my parents thirteen seas away, last Michaelmas. So much has changed. Being an international student at Oxford, my first time outside my country and away from family, brought out strengths of character that once lay buried deep inside. This, no other experience could have done. Everything was a first: country, culture… climate! But I fought through it all. I learnt about boundaries and prioritising myself, that it’s okay to say no. I can now cook, write pretty good emails, and I’ve rediscovered my passion for my subject with a wonder I last felt at age thirteen. I have a sea of books at Blackwell’s, Waterstones to swim in, and a wide, starry night sky under which to walk and think. I now know the sweet feeling of going home. Would I want to have it any other way? No. This is very different, sure—but a good different. Old seers wondered where growth is if not in discomfort. That may be true. But for now, I just want to reach my academic destinations on time – me and my umbrella through the rain!